To Enterprising Young Men. The subscriber wishes to engage ONE HUNDRED MEN, to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years. For particulars enquire of Major Andrew Henry, near the Lead Mines, in the County of Washington, (who will ascend with, and command the party) or to the subscriber at St. Louis.
--Wm. H. Ashley.
Ad in Missouri Gazette, February 1822
In the early 1800's, there were a small group of rugged individualists who thought that the idea of a vast unexplored territory beyond the Missouri River was a wonderful challenge, full of adventure and opportunities for riches beyond their wildest dreams. These were the mountain men. The magnet that drew them to uncertain ways along the rivers and over the treeless plains was the fur trade. It was the mountain men who named the Cache la Poudre River flowing out of the Rockies south of Virginia Dale, and also the Platte, the river that later led the way to the West for thousands of emigrants.
The era of the fur trapper is one of the most colorful slices of the American West. Romanticized in such films as Jerimiah Johnson, the mountain men numbered fewer than 1000 individuals, but their importance was monumental. They were the wedge that opened up the West.
Mostly these men were obscure and illiterate who owned hardly more than a rifle and their traps. Very few names of the men who first walked across the plains and along the rivers of Colorado are preserved. But remains of their camps and cabins were found all along the streams in the Northern Rockies by Fremont and other early explorers. Fremont's second expedition followed the Cache la Poudre, stopped for the night at a place which later become known as Virginia Dale. Kit Carson was one of the 13 men in Captain Fremont's party.
The mountain men lived hard, wild lives, continuously filled with adventure and personal peril. They were roughly clothed, lived on game, and ate anything that didn't eat them first.
The west became a field of romantic adventure, and developed a class of men who followed the wandering career of the native inhabitants rather than the toilsome lot of the eastern colonist. Nothing in western geography was discovered by explorations after 1840--every mile of it was known to the trader and trapper.
Eastern fashion in the early 19th century was the impetus that sent these adventurers into the Rockies in the first place. The beaver hat became all the rage, and with the trapping out of beaver in the east, the trappers were forced farther and farther west. John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company proved to be the most successful company in the fur trade. Astor advertised for, and sent parties of men across the Rockies to the mouth of the Columbia to set up a trading post, with a chain of trading posts set up along the way.
A rival company, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, was owned at various times by some of the most famous of mountain men: Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, Jim Bridger, among others. The competition for furs was very intense. At one point, Astor's men, who were following Jim Bridger to discover his trapping grounds, were deliberately led into the heart of Blackfeet country, where the leader of Astor's men was killed. Unfortunately, Jim Bridger also received an arrowhead in his shoulder that was not removed until several years later.
Trappers worked though out the fall and spring when their pelts were the finest, winters being spent in the lower valleys among fellow trappers. In his Journal of a Trapper 1834-1843, Osborne Russell decribed a winter campfire scene among his fellow mountain men.
Being a trapper was an arduous job, and with the constant threat of attacks by Indians made it even more so. The great release came with the summer rendezvous, an event anticipated for many months.
Read about Other Mountain Men Lots of links to Mountain Men, history, supplies, and rendezvous.
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